National Portrait Gallery opens first historical exhibition since reopening
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National Portrait Gallery opens first historical exhibition since reopening
Six Lives: The Stories of Henry VIII’s Queens installation views. All images © David Parr.

LONDON.- Six Lives: The Stories of Henry VIII’s Queens is the first major exhibition to place its focus on the women who married the infamous Tudor king.

Reuniting items that would have last been seen together when in possession of the queens themselves, Six Lives includes items that have never been on public display, and a 16th century portrait once thought lost.

Exploring agency, influence and cultural impact both in life and afterlife, the exhibition steps back through time – from contemporary portraits by Hiroshi Sugimoto and costume from SIX the Musical; to sixteenth-century portraits by Hans Holbein the Younger shown alongside magnificent tapestry, textiles, books and jewels.

Sixteenth-century paintings by Hans Holbein the Younger and contemporary photography by Hiroshi Sugimoto meet in the National Portrait Gallery’s first exhibition of historic portraiture since reopening, presenting a study of the lives and afterlives of the six women who married Henry VIII. Six Lives: The Stories of Henry VIII’s Queens (20 June – 8 September 2024) examines the representation of Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Katherine Howard and Katherine Parr, both in their own time and in the centuries since they lived.

Presenting the queens in chronological order, Six Lives is the first major exhibition of its kind to place the narrative focus on these extraordinary women, rather than their infamous husband. From historic paintings, miniatures, drawings and the queens’ personal possessions – including their own letters and books – to contemporary photography, costume and film, the exhibition draws upon a wealth of factual and fictional material to place the spotlight on six women who helped to shape a fascinating period of English history.

With many portraits and objects reunited for the first time in centuries, visitors to Six Lives can expect to learn more about the family networks that brought each queen to court, their relationships with the king, their patronage and interests, as well as the ways in which they used portraiture to communicate their politics, religious beliefs, values, identity and status.

Important loans from private collections include a recently conserved historic painted panel of Katherine Parr, attributed to ‘Master John’, and a portrait of Anne of Cleves by Edgar Degas. The three-quarter-length portrait of Katherine Parr was long believed to have been lost – destroyed by a fire in 1949 – and is being publically displayed for the first time since its conservation and sale at auction last year, while the portrait by Degas offers an unusual encounter with the sixteenth-century queen through the eyes of the renowned French Impressionist painter.

Other notable historic items displayed as part of Six Lives include Katherine of Aragon’s writing box; Anne Boleyn’s inscribed book of hours, her signature deliberately erased; an illustrated bible commissioned by Thomas Cromwell after the death of Jane Seymour, publically displayed for the first time; Anne of Cleves’ account book of her expenses as queen; a portrait miniature, thought to depict Katherine Howard by Hans Holbein the Younger; and a prayer book written by Katherine Parr, bearing an inscription from Henry VIII to her, displayed in London for the first time.

The stories of the queens have been constructed and revised many times, both in their lifetimes and throughout history – from their mottos and heraldic emblems, to their presentation on stage, in film and in books. Their stories have been a frequent source of fascination, repeatedly inspiring writers and artists of all kinds to attempt to uncover the ‘truth’ of their lives: their characters, their appearances and their relationships. Quoting from portraits made throughout the 16th century, few performances of the character of Anne Boleyn are undertaken without her distinctive pearl necklace with a ‘B’ pendant. Similarly, Holbein’s meticulous rendering of Anne of Cleves’ clothes provides ample information from which to present an instantly recognisable figure on stage or screen.

Some of the first portraits encountered upon entering the exhibition are contemporary works by renowned artist, Hiroshi Sugimoto, shown in London for the first time alongside historic items. Taken in 1999, the black and white photographs capture six individual portraits – waxwork depictions of each queen – made by Madame Tussaud’s. So naturalistic that they appear to be taken from life, the photographs explore the tension between the real and the imagined.

Further examining this tension, depictions from cinema, theatre, opera and television have been brought together to explore how the queens have been interpreted in popular culture. The exhibition includes Katherine of Aragon’s character costume from the West End’s SIX the Musical; film clips and marketing material from the German film Anna Boleyn (1920); costume from stage performances at both the Royal Shakespeare Company and Royal Opera House; and collaged designs created for the 1970 BBC television production, The Six Wives of Henry VIII.

The exhibition also looks at the staging of the queens’ lives in their own time – in particular, their alignment with the exemplary stories of the women of classical antiquity and the Bible that were on constant display, in imagery that permeated every aspect of court life: chased in metal, painted on panels, woven into tapestries and illuminated in books. Playing cards that reference the biblical heroine Judith as The Queen of Hearts and paintings such as Joos van Cleve’s Lucretia (c. 1520-25) ensured each queen would never have forgotten that they were performing on the court stage.

“Henry VIII was the star around which the country and Tudor court orbited. In his nearly 38-year reign, the six women who married him were protagonists in an almost implausible melodrama. Often reduced to the rhyme ‘Divorced, Beheaded, Died / Divorced, Beheaded, Survived,’ this exhibition seeks to restore the queens’ individuality and agency in both historic and contemporary storytelling, bringing them out of Henry’s shadow and their homogenous grouping. By encountering the court culture in which they performed their roles as queens, the images of their families and peers, the works that they commissioned, the objects they owned and even the letters and notes that they wrote, we cannot fail to glimpse them as individuals. In this exhibition, the faint surviving traces of each queen are displayed alongside the portraits that have helped to turn them into icons.” ---Dr. Charlotte Bolland Senior Curator of Research and 16th Century Collections, National Portrait Gallery

“The National Portrait Gallery offers a particularly resonant space in which to consider the lives of Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Katherine Howard and Katherine Parr, situated as we are in the West End of London, amongst the theatres, opera houses and cinemas that have staged the queens’ stories for hundreds of years. Bringing the smoke and mirrors of the stage and screen into dialogue with the magnificence of the Tudor court, Six Lives: The Stories of Henry VIII’s Queens hopes to engender empathy, reminding us to consider the stories that we collectively construct, and the ease with which we can come to define people by a single moment in their lives.” --Dr. Nicholas Cullinan OBE Director, National Portrait Gallery

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